Climatic conflict: Is the Mackerel War a model for future trade disputes?

What happens when a fish crosses the border? A new Rutgers University study presents evidence that as fish move with changing water temperatures, their tendency to cross borders will cause political conflicts among nations with varying fishery management authorities.

Fishery regulators write rules “based on the notion that particular fish species live in particular waters and don’t move much,” says Malin Pinsky, assistant professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources in Rutgers–New Brunswick’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “Well, they’re moving now because climate change is warming ocean temperatures.”

“Consider flounder, which have already shifted their range 250 miles farther north,” Pinsky says. “Federal fisheries rules have allocated many of those fish to fishers in North Carolina, and now they have to steam hundreds of extra miles to catch their flounder.”

Because fish are typically more nimble than their management systems, this kind of movement will exacerbate international fisheries conflicts, Pinsky says.

“Avoiding fisheries conflicts and overfishing ultimately provides more fish, more food and more jobs for everyone,” says Pinsky. He and his co-authors cite the “mackerel war” between Iceland and the European Union as an example of the disruption of fisheries causing international disputes.

EU member nations agreed on an annual mackerel quota. But by 2007, those mackerel had begun to move to colder waters near Iceland, which is not an EU member. Iceland began fishing the sudden abundance of mackerel, but did not agree with the EU on quota limits. The dispute became an ongoing trade war.

“We need international agreements for the collaborative monitoring and sharing of fisheries as they move, much as the Antarctic conservation agreement has begun to do,” he said. The Antarctic management body, known as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, cooperates with neighboring fishery managers to share information about shared fisheries, including those that will continue to move.

The study, published Thursday, June 14 in the journal Science, shows that new fisheries are likely to appear in more than 70 countries all over the world as a result of climate change.

About the author

Jessica Hathaway

Jessica Hathaway is the editor in chief of National Fisherman. She has been covering the fishing industry for 13 years, serves on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s Communications Committee and is a National Fisheries Conservation Center board member.

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